I’d never seen rain like I saw in Georgia before.
It just doesn’t rain like that where I grew up. My first exposure to the powerful, ear-drum splitting, head-throbbing, hair-standing lightning strikes of storms in the eastern US were on our trips across the country to visit my paternal grandmother. The very idea of rain in the summer is just strange to those that grow up in California. It just doesn’t happen. And, during the 1970’s, there was a drought and water shortage, which meant water rationing and even less rain than normal. So, to me, the amount of rain that fell while we lived in Georgia was biblical. Torrential downpours sheeted down from huge, flat-topped black clouds locals called “thunderheads.” They looked like huge anvils rising miles into the sky to flatten off; and the invisible metalsmith working on those mighty giant anvils banged his hammer to forge steel, sending sparks of hot yellow and white and purple lightning arcing and dancing to earth. The snapping crack of thunder peals would buffet you with their force and then roll off into the distance like a cannon ball fired from the storm.
Once, during a particularly violent and active storm, I was sitting in the living room on the scratchy, ugly sofa that my parents had my entire life and staring lazily out the window. The springtime wasn’t hot, and was less humid than summer, and the storms rolled in on a regular basis. My brother and mother were there, and we were probably watching TV and passing time. My father wasn’t around. He almost never seemed to be, now that I recollect, but that was probably due to the fact that he did shift work at the M&M/Mars plant in nearby Cleveland, TN.
Anyway, I was on the couch next to that open window that looked southward into a bramble of brush dividing our yard from that of the next door neighbor. The sky was so dark, it was like twilight. The air was heavy, pregnant with impending rain, and the storm clouds piled higher and higher into the heavens while I watched. I was fascinated with their speed and sheer size. They were monsters rising, huge dragons heaving their bulk from the earth in dark piles of black smoke to blast their fiery lightning-breath at the cowering humans below.
Suddenly, in the distance, I heard a roar as a wave of sound tumbled over the landscape and sped off to distant places. A wind picked up and shook the lazy young leaves awake on the limbs of the sturdy old trees lining the streets, standing sentinel in the yards of those ancient, creaking houses of cracked, spider-webbed paint and rotting, sagging lumber. I perked up a bit, and waited; a flash in the sky, that seemed to come from no one particular location, strobed outside. I counted – one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, f-
… the peal of thunder clapped and made me jump, cracking as sudden as a whip snapping unexpectedly behind me. I became more alert, watching the skies for more lightning. Gently, off in the distance, I heard thunder roll like a growing avalanche and then die on the horizon. I still watched. I could hear the wind now, cool but not cold, pushing against the old guards’ trunks and limbs, pushing the last seeds to the earth for them, bending them before they sprang back to reject the breeze trying to gently topple them. I heard birds as they whizzed by, but didn’t see them, but then the earth seemed to grow silent and stealthy, scheming and plotting.
It was still as a church at night. Only the wind, starting to rush through the trees now, broke the stealthy quiet.
A mighty blow of thunder ripped through the thick air and violently struck the house like Thor’s hammer, seeming to crash so hard into the tiny old structure as to knock it from its foundations. I yelped like a kicked dog and felt that hot blast of adrenaline burn my palms and cheeks and soles of my feet from the start, and simultaneously my mother screamed. I laughed. I always laughed. In an instant, my brother and mother were laughing too … but I could see fear and the edges of panic creeping into Ryan’s expression.
My mother put her hands over her ears. She didn’t like fireworks, either.
The sky impossibly darkened more, and there was another strobe-light flash that lit the room. My mother tensed, squeezing her eyes shut, and pressed her hands harder to her head. I braced, but refused to cover my ears. That was for chickens, and I was no chicken. I was determined to face the storm, to brave the thunder and lightning, to stand defiantly against the —
I almost wet myself when the sonic boom smashed against the doors and window panes, buzzing them loudly in their frames. The sound was indescribably loud and sudden, and I felt myself leave the surface of the sofa when I jumped. I was sure that if I looked I’d see my skin laying next to me, still in the spot where I’d been sitting when I leaped out of it.
Ryan screamed like a school girl at a horror movie and raced to my mother, who was the very visage of panic and disorientation. She was nearly in an upright fetal position, sitting on the love seat next to the couch, embracing herself for comfort. A fountain of strength, a port in that crackling storm, was she. She clutched Ryan tightly in front of her and pretended to be comforting him. I knew she was hiding behind him, though. Nothing like being a human shield for your mother. Ryan was too stupid to know better.
Tiny, whimpering sounds of tension-built fear were streaming from them. It was like being on a roller coaster before that first, big, stomach-extracting, gut-smashing, face-peeling fall down the incline. The suspense was as charged as the air. I braced – any minute, now, I thought, any doggone minute … the lightning’s coming, and then the thunder, and dang it, don’t jump, do not jump, don’t you DARE jump, don’t be a —
I jumped like I was skipping rope, just like the sissy I was telling myself not to be, and probably yelped too. I hoped it was lost in that landslide of sound that shook the house like you’d shake a wet umbrella in the foyer, but I can’t be sure. I am sure, though, that it was lost in the shrieks of terror my mother and brother let loose. They were long, sustained notes, like people on a thrill ride, the notes discordant like a car horn and ending simultaneously.
The house stopped shaking, and the thunder rolled away into Dixieland. There was a sound, like the wind only growing, and a familiar, pleasant smell.
Rain. It came on softly, a gentle spring rain from that granite sky, tiny splashes bouncing from the concrete porch and the asphalt on the blacktop ribbon of Bell Avenue. Gradually, the water began to trickle over the side of the road’s surface. But the sound grew fr
om a gentle rain, to a heavy rain, to a torrent, to Niagara South. The fat, oblong drops of water crashed viciously into the earth, exploding into a miniature fountain before collecting again into streams that gushed into the ditches and began to raise the water level. Faster, thicker and harder the rain came. In moments, I couldn’t see the other side of the street.
There were random booms and rumbles from the distance, and every once in a while one would pop nearer, a brief flash lighting the darkened room and blazing over the trees and grass outside. It seemed the worst had passed.
I started thinking, then, about something my father had once said. He said that he met a man when he was young who told him he’d been hit by lightning. He said that he felt kind of tingly and pins-and-needle-ish, then there was a blinding flash and he went black. When he came to, people had gathered around him and were leaning over him, murmuring and covering their mouths with their hands. He told my father the last thing he remembered was that all the hair on his body stood up on end, just before the bolt struck.
BOOOOOOOOOMMM! The lightning responded to my thoughts. I shuddered, a creepy chill shimmying its way down my spine.
Then the lights went out and the TV snapped silent.
Another shrill banshee cry from the two huddled on the love seat, and I again left my epidermal layers beside me when their screams and the sudden dark startled me.
Heart pounding, ears ringing from the chemical rush, and my insides all jelly and quivering, I dropped myself onto the couch again, and listened to that driving, punishing rain beat the road, the trees, the roof of the house and the yard. It was a percussive cacophony like white water rushing just outside the window.
Just then, I felt an odd sensation. It was an itchy, faintly tingly and burning feeling in my hands, my feet, my scalp. And then it happened.
The hair on my arm started slowly standing on end.
I watched in growing horror as the tiny little strands stood as though in a trace, all in unison, reaching slowly up like blossoming flowers.
“OHMYGODI’MGONNADIEI’MGONNADIEI’MGONNADIIIIIIIEEEEE!!” I shut my eyes and jumped, diving as quick as I could for the floor, toward the center of the room, away from the dreaded open window that would let the snake of electric plasma leap in at the speed of light and fry me to a burned cinder like a child’s marshmallow over a campfire.
The thud of my landing was huge and I tucked into a tiny ball and held my breath —
… and absolutely nothing happened.
I opened my eyes, slowly, gingerly. My mother and brother were staring at me with wide eyes, jaws hanging open as I moved my arms away from shielding my face in slow motion.
“My hair … it was … standing up … the lightning …” I stammered.
Only the rain, easing back into a gentle springtime song, answered me.
Way, way off somewhere, a thunder ball rolled down over the landscape, barely audible over the rain through the windows.
It rained all night. I didn’t see any more lighting, though.